I've been wisened to the ways of Washington.
George W. Bush, as quoted by the A.P., Nov. 5, 2004
Let me lay the groundwork for my startling new theory:
Four centuries ago in Spain, Miguel Cervantes wrote one of the
comic masterpieces of world literature, Don Quixote. Quixote is a guy
who was obsessed with reading chivalric romancestales of wandering
knights sallying forth to make the world safe for the virtuous. Here,
according to Walter Starkie's translation, is the bizarre effect:
"He so immersed himself in those romances that he spent whole days
and nights over his books; and thus with little sleeping and much reading
his brains dried up to such a degree that he lost the use of his reason."
The result was that he "stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever
entered a madman's brain. He believed that it was necessary, both for
his own honour and for the service of the state, that he should become a
knight-errant and roam through the world with his horse and armour in
quest of adventures, and practise all that had been performed by the
knights-errant of whom he had read."
So Quixote, full of righteous zeal and noble intent, absolutely
certain of the virtue of his cause now that his brains had dried up,
recruited Sancho Panza as his peasant sidekick and they went off to rid
the world of evil.
They weren't even interested in oil.
But it turned out that rather than bringing virtue out of evil
they more often brought chaos out of order. In an early instance of his
battle against evil, Quixote confused windmills with wicked giants and
attacked one of them. He lost the battle when his lance got stuck in one
of the revolving windmill blades, "dragging him and his horse after it and
rolling him over and over on the ground, sorely damaged."
And so on for hundreds of pages and scores of misadventures. It's
what happens when your brains dry up.
The relevance of all this is about to become clear. Hang on.
In his first press conference after being elected to a second
term, President Bush said he'd been "wisened" by his experience in
At least that's the way the A.P. spelled it. But "wisened" isn't
in my desk dictionary. It's not even in the twenty-volume Oxford English
And as linguistically sensitive as the president is, I find it
hard to believe he'd utter a word that's not in the O.E.D.
My first thought was that the A.P. and all the newspapers that ran
the story were trying to make the president look badjust another example
of the left-wing press diddling with the president's language so it'll
Then I had a second thought: maybe the A.P. misspelled the word.
"Wisened" with an s may not be in the dictionary, but "wizened" with a z
certainly is. And both words seem to be pronounced the same way, so how
could the A.P. know just from listening that the president was speaking a
word not in the dictionary instead of speaking a well-established word?
The Truth, Mainly
We all know that "wizened" with a z means withered or shriveled or
all dried up. And if that's the word the president spoke, he would mean
that four years in Washington have desiccated him.
But, you're probably saying, he doesn't look desiccated. And
you're righthe doesn't.
So he must have meant that on the inside, not the outside, he's
all dried up from being in Washington too long.
Call me quixotic, but I want to believe the president expected us
to recognize the veiled reference to Quixote's brains drying up.
Ever the optimist, I like to think what the president was saying
was really a cry for helpa "stop me before it's too late" kind of cry.
He must have been hoping we'd remember the disastrous effect of a dried-up
brain on Quixote.
If reading too many chivalric romances can do that to a brain,
imagine what reading too many memos from Dick, Wolfie, and Rummy might do.
I also thinkperhaps naivelythat the president was in shock
over winning the election he didn't much want to win. Surely he was
looking forward to leaving the Iraqi mess to Kerry.
The president was, I desperately want to believe, sick to death of
playing Don Quixote. He must have figured out that Cervantes' Quixote,
armed with only a lance, was hilarious, but that he himself, armed with
far more lethal toys, was a character in a tragedy rather than a comedy.
And how about the rest of us? Have our collective brains dried up
to the extent that we've lost the use of our reason? Have we become too
wizened to care?
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail